Posted by: pointlenana | September 11, 2014

UTMB – Epic

Epic might be overused these days, but after running UTMB I think it’s ok to use “epic” to describe the event.  From the festivities around the race(s), to the size of the race (largest trail race in the world at 2300 runners, plus another 4500 runners in the other UTMB-related events), to the length (a bit longer than your typical 100 mile race), to the vertical climb/descent, and especially to the steepness of those hills, it is a BIG experience.

Normally I describe races in pretty linear fashion.  I’m not sure I can remember the 38 hours of UTMB in linear fashion, so this will be a little more abstract. And about as lengthy/epic as the race itself.  But there are pictures, so you can skip all the words if necessary…

The Race:  Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, UTMB for short.  166k/~104 miles loop course.  9600 meters/30000+ feet of climbing (+ the same back down).  3 countries.  19 villages. 2300 starters, about 1500 finishers.  To get into the race you have to run 2 or 3 long hard ultras to qualify, and then get selected in a lottery.

Pre-race Party: With 4 or 5 other races going on during UTMB week, the atmosphere in Chamonix is festive from at least Tuesday onward.  People hang out in the bars near the finish line and cheer people in most hours of the day.  Also, because so many “famous” runners run this race, it’s pretty common to run into people you’ve heard of.  Janet and I ran into Michael Wardian (who won the Big Sur Marathon in April) on a trail one day, and Meghan Arbogast (awesome 53 yo woman who is way faster than me) at race checkin.  Janet also ran into Hal Koerner at the expo one day, and I ended up with a temporary elevation profile tattoo indirectly provided (via Adam Hewey – another person from Seattle who is pretty awesome himself and who started with the elites) by Jason Schlarb who placed fourth in the race.   Janet and I met Scott Mills and his wife Jean on the way up to Aguille du Midi – Scott runs the San Diego 100 and has run Western States many times.  We saw plenty of elite runners at the awards ceremony.  It’s fun running into some of these heroes in real life.  For many of us there, UTMB is a bucket-list kind of race – we had to do some work to get there but (at least until the race starts) we’re glad to be there.  Plus Chamonix is a spectacular place – it’s hard not to be in a good mood in a place that beautiful.

The view from our Chamonix room, the day we left.

The view from our Chamonix room, the day we left.

Race Start: I had read that the atmosphere gets grim in the last couple hours before the race.  I didn’t see grim, but it did get business-like.  People disappeared to get dressed or had places to get to.  I had also heard that the small plaza where runners wait before the start fills up, so I dropped my “spares bag” (aka drop bag with extra clothes/shoes/supplies, for use in Courmayeur halfway through the race) about 2 hours before the race and was in the waiting area by 4 for the 5:30pm start.  Janet waited with me for a little bit, but mostly I just looked around or talked to 2 guys next to me who happened to speak English since they were from Boulder.  One of those guys ended up dropping at Courmayeur, but the second (named Paul) plays a key role at the end of this story.

Waiting a long time, in the Place du Triangle l'Amitie

Waiting a long time, in the Place du Triangle l’Amitie.

The rain is about to start.

The rain is about to start.  So is the race.

It started raining shortly before the start, prompting many/most of the runners to hurry to put on rain coats.  Since it was about 60 degrees and we’d be getting warm running shortly, I skipped the raincoat and kind of scratched my head about the unwillingness to get wet.  Perhaps European runners melt in the rain?  After some inspirational music (play Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise 50 times in a row and you start to get a feel for the start/finish line at UTMB) and the countdown (huit, sept, six, cinq, qatre, trois, deux, un) we were off.  As with most big races, I didn’t move initially after “go”, and then gradually walked up to the start about a minute later.  It was pretty congested at the beginning so I was mostly thinking about not tripping and finding Janet in the crowds lining the course.  When I saw her, I leaned over the rail and gave her a kiss, prompting the woman next to her to go “ooohh!!!!”.  It is France after all.

The first few miles were flat – through the streets of Chamonix, onto a trail to Les Houches, and through streets in Les Houches.  At this point it was a race for me, and I was focused on moving up in the pack as much as I could to land among fast climbers when we hit the first hill.  It was still raining, but as people started to warm up they took off their coats.  None of them stopped, and most were carrying poles, so the process usually involved some squirming under their backpack while flailing their pointy poles unwittingly at any nearby runners.  So in addition to avoiding roots/rocks and other runners’ feet, I also had to protect my face from being poled.  But I felt good, the race was finally on, and I was having fun.

The first climb, up from Les Houches.

The first climb, up from Les Houches.

And what I was seeing at that point.

And what I was seeing at that point.

The Weather:  The race last year was blessed with perfect conditions (whereas the year before it was shortened due to horrible weather).  It rained very hard a few days before the race, to the point where people who’ve been to Chamonix for decades told us they’d never seen l’Arve River so high before.  The day after the rain, a bunch of runners in the TDS race tromped through the trails we ran at the start of our race two days later.  I thought it might dry out a bit, but the rain started again shortly before our race and continued for at least the first few hours we were running.  The consequence was slippery trails at the beginning, ankle-deep mud on and off through the full race, and enough humidity to cause fog problems later.  That said, we were very lucky with the weather.  We carried gear for cold, windy conditions, but I doubt it was ever much below 40 degrees and there wasn’t much wind.  The most I had on was shorts, a short-sleeved shirt, arm warmers, a thin raincoat, and a warm hat.  2 years ago people put on everything (at least tights, rainpants, another warm top layer, and gloves) and were still very cold.  I’ll take some mud over survival conditions anytime.

The mud was comical and/or hard at times though.  For example, the first hill is up and down in ski areas between Les Houches and Saint Gervais.  My shoes (Montrail Bajadas at that point) did pretty well in the mud going up, but going down everyone was sliding and sometimes falling.  I found myself either sliding/skiing or running down in deep grass alongside the trail to have better footing.  And at some point the mud started balling up under our shoes, which made it all worse.  That first downhill was harder on my quads than I wanted it to be – it’s quite steep and with the mud there was no way to go easy down it.  The only option was to point the toes downhill and react when the mud took control and/or I had to avoid something trippy or cliffy.  The other fun muddy section was in an area called The Bovine late in the race.  I ran through there around 11pm in the dark, and at some point found myself in a herd of cows with big horns and cowbells.  Not knowing a lot about cows I found myself talking to them, walking slowly behind when they moved out the way up the trail, and going around them when they wouldn’t move – hoping that I wasn’t violating the cow code of conduct to the point of being gored.  With my focus on the cows, I often found myself ankle-deep in mud (hopefully – it is a cow pasture after all) on or off the trail.  I did make it through in one piece, and by then my shoes and legs were so muddy that it was pretty hard to tell anyway when I was in mud vs. out of mud.

The Hills:  At 2500 feet of climbing, that first hill up from Les Houches is not thought of as a big climb.  That should give you sense for the climbs during the race.  According the elevation profile there are about 9 extended climbs during the 104 miles and of those, at least 4 climb 3000 feet or more.  At least 3 of the climbs top out above 8000 feet – not incredibly high but high enough relative to the 3500 foot start that you feel it a little.  At about 31000 total feet of climbing, it was half again as hard as the Cascade Crest 100 I did last year.  The total alone doesn’t really tell the story though – it was the sustained steep grades on both the ups and downs that I really felt.  On the up, it’s obvious – I’m 2000 feet into a climb, I’m at 7000 feet of elevation, it’s really steep, and I have 1000-1500 feet to go.  Sigh.  Down may be less obvious, but it’s hard to move quickly down a 12-20% grade with loose rocks and/or mud, especially in darkness.  It’s also very taxing on the quads, trying to stay in control.  Later in the race, even though my legs were tired and sore, I forced myself to run fast downhill whenever I hit a moderate grade and/or a smooth section of trail – it turned out I ached about the same whether I went slow or fast and those moderate downhill sections were really my only chance to run with any speed for most of the race.  There are almost no flat sections after the start.  During the nights I used just a headlamp while moving uphill, and then added a handheld flashlight on the downs, since those tend to highlight tripping hazards better.  Amazingly, even at the end of the race my speed – especially on the downhills – was limited much more by the trail conditions than my own fatigue.

Most runners at UTMB run with trekking poles aka sticks.  I practiced a few times before UTMB and hated them – another thing to manage, they didn’t seem to help much, and at times the poles tripped me rather than keeping me upright.  They also tended to fall off my pack.  I debated taking them at all, but they fold up and are light enough that it seemed like a good idea just in case.  I jerry-rigged a more secure way of putting them on the pack and had them with me when we left Chamonix.  My opinion of poles did not go up during the first few miles as people swung them willy-nilly.  I stubbornly did not pull them out on the first up, and I was too busy trying to stay upright on the first muddy downhill to think about poles.  But on that down I told myself I’d get them out if the next up was even slightly muddy.  It was still muddy, so the poles came out.  I thought I’d fold them up and put them back on my pack for the downhills, but instead I kept them out for the last 90 miles of the run – using them on the ups and holding them in one hand on the downs with maybe a flashlight in the other hand.  I loved the poles in UTMB – they saved me many times when I tripped, they helped me with arm-pumping rhythm on the steady ups, and towards the end when my legs were tired I was able to push up a bit on the climbs with my upper body.  They do make drinking/eating a bit harder (especially when the flashlight was out – I didn’t see many/any other runners with a handheld, even though the light is much better).  But for that race at least, I’m a fan.

Heading up, somewhere in Italy, probably near the Bonatti Refuge.

Heading up, somewhere in Italy, probably near the Bonatti Refuge.

And then back down again.

And then back down again.

And then up again.

And then up again.

One cruel aspect of the course for us slower runners late in the race, is that the last few aid stations are at the end of a long descent where you can’t see the aid station due to darkness but you know it’s close and maybe you can hear it.  Those aid stations sound a few yards away, and then it turns out you have to go down another 750 feet of steep rugged switchbacks.  Again and again I thought I was close, only to spend another 30-45 minutes struggling on and on before the aid station really showed up.  I fell a few times during those descents, but came away with just a few scrapes on my knee and hand.

The Villages/Aid Stations/Communities:  This is a simplification, but think of UTMB as a race with the big Mont Blanc summit in the center, a deep valley running around Mont Blanc, and then another high ridge looking over the valley to Mont Blanc.  In essence, the UTMB course runs on that outer high ridge, dropping down into the valley for aid station stops.  (In reality, the valley doesn’t run uninterrupted around the mountain, so some of our climbs were over passes from one valley to the next.)  We passed through 19 villages during the race, and in each village I passed at least a few people nowhere near the aid station who were sitting on a fence or wall and cheering runners on.  Cheers included the ubiquitous “Allez!” but also “Bon journie”/”Bon course”, and my favorite “Kur-AJ!” (courage).  I think Courage captures it pretty well – a combination of good job for what we’ve already accomplished and Have Heart for what is still to come.

Stupid expression on my face, but this is what it was like to run through the villages.  Stone buildings, big solid old wooden doors, narrow cobblestone streets.

Running through the villages. Stone buildings, big solid old wooden doors, narrow cobblestone streets.

Except for Courmayeur, my rhythm in aid stations was pretty standard: 1) Stagger into the tent, 2) find the liquids and refill my water bottles (sometime drinking half a bottle of something to rehydrate), 3) drink a bowl of salty noodle soup 4) get a volunteer to refill the soup bowl with Pepsi and drink that 5) get another volunteer to refill the soup/Pepsi bowl with milk and hot tea, and drink that 6) eat some orange slices and whatever else looks appetizing at that moment 7) shove a handful of bag balm down my shorts to address some, um, chafing issues 8) think if there’s anything else I need to do 9) leave and head on.  We had to carry portable/reusable cups to avoid generating a lot of paper waste, but it was just easier to reuse the soup bowl.  Usually I’d walk for a short way out of the aid station to digest, then do a slow trot to let stiff legs warm up, and then walk or run as the terrain dictated.

A typical aid station - food and drinks around the edges and runners at tables in the middle.  I think this is Champex.

A typical aid station – food and drinks around the edges and runners at tables in the middle. I think this is Champex.

Time to get back at it.

Time to get back at it.

There were webcams at a few aid stations.  This might have been taken just before I took the pictures above.  I forgot they were there, so no gameface.

There were webcams at a few aid stations. This might have been taken just before I took the pictures above.  Thanks RB40 for grabbing this.

The food was ok, although a little monotonous.  Oranges, bananas, bread, European food bars, salami, cheese, probably some other things.  There weren’t any surprises over the race – I appreciate the aid station captains at Cascade Crest much more now, because each station in that race has something different/special.  I would have loved to have some grapes, watermelon, or pb&j along the way.  I did supplement the aid station food with 12 servings of Hammer Perpetuum, some gels, and 2 pocket fuels.

Courmayeur was the only different experience.  Within 10 seconds of turning the corner into the aid station, they had located and handed me my drop bag – amazing given that there are 2300 drop bags to take care of.  Courmayeur is a good example of the benefits of running a course a second time.  Most of us got our drop bag and sat down in a very crowded space downstairs by the entrance.  I wanted to eat first and then deal with my drop bag (to have time to digest), but instead went to the drop bag immediately thinking I’d have to hand it in before getting food.  I spent 20 minutes down there changing out of my Bajadas and into Altra Olympuses, and trying to treat a heel blister (unsuccessfully).  The soles of my feet were white and prunelike when they came out, after running in wet shoes for about 18 hours.  When I was done, I went in search of food, and found a huge, mostly-empty gymnasium upstairs with food and a handful of smarter runners who went straight up there.  Next time – or for someone reading this who will run it – I’ll walk upstairs first.  I ate, turned in my drop bag, and then set off with stiff legs after a 40 minute stop.

Coming into Courmayeur around 8am Saturday morning.  The next climb is that rock behind my head.

Coming into Courmayeur around 8am Saturday morning. The next climb is that rock behind my head.

Sleep deprivation – Because UTMB starts at 5:30pm on Friday, and takes 36-46 hours for most people, it guarantees that most runners will spend 2 nights out without much sleep.  I was no exception, finishing just after sunrise at the end of the second night.  I actually spent more time running at night than daytime, something like 20 hours of nighttime and 18 hours of daylight.  I had been up more than 24 hours before, e.g. just flying to Europe, but never awake into/through a second night so I was worried about that.  Oddly, I felt at my worst/most tired sometime Saturday morning when I still had almost a whole day to get through.  I had hoped to hold off on caffeine until the second night, but with the fatigue Saturday morning I started in on the Pepsi at the beginning of the day rather than the end.  Climbing up towards Grand col Ferret later that afternoon, I saw probably a dozen runners lying napping in the sun by the trail.

Near the top of the climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone.  Probably my low point in the race.

Near the top of the climb from Courmayeur to Refuge Bertone. Probably my low point in the race, in spite of the scenery.

Looking west from the Grand Col Ferret.  I started the day at the far end of the valley in France, spent the day in this Italian valley, and am about to cross into Switzerland.

Looking west from the Grand Col Ferret. I started the day at the far end of the valley in France, spent the day on the Italian ridge on the left, and am about to cross into Switzerland.

Switzerland was ok also.

Switzerland was ok also.

During my second night, I had some issues – balance problems when I looked up, some bleariness in my thinking, and seeing things aka hallucinating, but I never felt on the verge of falling asleep.  I was intensely aware that I was exhausted and had to be careful, e.g. in the last section which deserves its own writeup below.  But the prospect of getting done overrode the fatigue.  Well, that and some caffeinated gels and Pepsi and black tea at each aid station.

The nighttime wardrobe.

The nighttime wardrobe.

The second night out is about to start.  So are the cows.

The second night out is about to start. So are the cows with big horns.

Heading up the Bovine climb the second evening, as the sun was going down, I started turning trees/branches/stumps into other things.  I’d look ahead and see spectators sitting by the trail – really, people went to a lot of effort to cheer us on so it was possible – only to continue on and find out it was really a tree stump.  That mostly stopped once the sun set.  Adam Hewey told me he saw a lizard, got down on hands and knees to look at it, and found out it was part of a wet bootprint.  The real trick though was figuring out when things were real.  E.g. Adam later saw a “lizard”, wrote it off as bootprint, and then watched as the lizard moved away.  The thing that threw me were the non-race runners I saw the second night,  coming uphill as I was headed down, at 11pm-1am at night.  Out for a nighttime training run?  Volunteers taking care of us?  I saw at least 4 people doing that, and don’t think I was imagining them.

2 am Sunday morning:  The party at the Vallorcine aid station.  Lively bunch we've got here.

2 am Sunday morning: The party at the Vallorcine aid station. 12 miles to go. Lively upbeat bunch here.

Vallorcine to the Finish:  In an epic race overall, this last leg was the most epic at least for me.  It’s about 12 miles, with a 5 mile 3000 foot climb at the beginning and then 7 miles of “downhill” to the finish.  I left Vallorcine at about 2am, and after the previous climbs was worried that the leg could take 6 or more hours.  An aid station volunteer calmed me somewhat by saying it would take 4 or 5 hours (to go 12 miles, 2-3 miles/hour).  The climb starts out easily enough, with a moderate even-runnable grade for a couple miles.  Then comes the Col des Montets climb, which is the steepest climb of the whole course.  I knew that beforehand, but didn’t understand how it could be worse than all the steep stuff we had already done.  Silly me.  This was steep as in “bolt small metal steps to the side of steep rocks” steep.  It was also one of those hockey stick climbs that gets steeper as you go.  We’d climb up a ways, then I’d crank my neck back (usually losing my balance but thankfully never falling backwards off the cliff) and see runners’ headlamps at an impossible angle above where I stood.  Climb up, and repeat.  I think there were also 3 or 4 false summits where it looked like we’d top out, but then after cresting a rise, it would keep going.  Up.

I found this in a websearch for Col des Montets.  It was dark when I was there, but this looks about right.

I found this in a websearch for Col des Montets. It was dark when I was there, but this looks about right.

Eventually I made it to the top of the steep stuff.  Then it was another mile or so of picking our way through rocks uphill to Tete aux Vents.  Around this time, the fog (or clouds) came in and visibility dropped dramatically.  I was near a few other runners though so I tried to keep them in sight and moved along at a better speed.  At the summit, a few UTMB personnel were there to wand our bibs (in part to ensure no cheating, and in part for the live updates).  Then it was the “downhill” to La Flegere.

One mistake I made before the race was not looking at this section of the course more closely on the map.  In my mind, we had climbed up one side of a ridge and La Flegere was just on the other side.  In reality, it was 2+ miles of skirting along the edge of a high basin from the summit to La Flegere.  When I say “the edge”, I mean we had rocky plateau/basin on one side of the trail and steep slopes/cliffs on the other side.  It’s hard to know though, because visibility was something like 50 feet.  Adam told me he slipped along here, and although he landed safely on his rear, one of his poles flew over the edge into a bush – he had to lean out and retrieve it.

Route-finding became difficult in here.  At the start on Friday they told us they’d put trail markers every 40 yards due to expected fog but I think they meant only on the sections we’d travel the first night.  On the path to La Flegere, it seemed like they were every 75-200 yards and although the markers reflected headlamps very well, the fog was too thick to see one marker from the next.  Again, that area is a rocky basin – sometimes there is a thin dirt trail to follow, other times the trail crosses rocks and you kind of have to know where you are going.  I didn’t and I couldn’t see the trail markers, so I often found myself looking for wet bootprints on the rock.  I’ve made the mistake of following people who are lost before, so I was also always looking for the confirmation of the next trail marker.  Several times I would travel to where I should see another trail marker, then go a ways further, and then a little further, and then finally see the next marker just as I was ready to turn around.  With the fog, routefinding problems, and general fatigue, it took me about 75 minutes to travel these 2 downhill, fairly runnable miles.  It took the men’s and women’s winners less than 30 minutes to do the same section in the sun the previous afternoon.  At some point during those 75 minutes, I learned a life lesson about letting go of how I’d like things to be and just accepting how they are.

One thing that was a little surprising in this race is that in spite of being near other runners for most of the race (vs. the typical small trail race where you are often alone), it was pretty silent.  Maybe it was language barriers, or the difficulty, or trail culture in Europe, but there was little conversation and none of the usual “nice job!” as someone passes.  As people passed me in the fog, I started saying “nice job!”, “good work!”, etc. just to see what would happen, and I don’t think anyone responded.

The Finish:  I finally made it to La Flegere, and from there it was 5 downhill miles that I had run with Janet a few days earlier.  The downhill starts out on a steep gravel road, then heads down a steep technical trail with lots of roots and rocks.  I did the best I could and then suddenly found myself at La Floria, a small café 2-3 kilometers from the end, just as the sun was coming up.  I knew from there it got easier, I could see again, and finally I allowed myself to think that I would finish.  I packed up my hat, jacket, and headlamp, and then took off down the trail.  Again, the trail conditions had slowed me more than fatigue so I started running faster as they got easier.  When I hit the paved road, not far from the finish, I ran harder thinking I was close.  And I was close, except that the course winds around in Chamonix a bit before the actual finish, so as I ran hard I started thinking “huh, this is taking a while, I’m getting tired”.  But I didn’t want my “fast” running to go for naught away from the glory of the finish line, so I maintained it – a couple turns, there’s the finish line, I’ve done it.

A few yards left to go.  Much quieter at 7am than at 4pm, but there were still people cheering us in.

A few yards left to go. Much quieter at 7am than at 4pm, but there were still people cheering us in.

The Aftermath: Have you ever heard that you need to keep moving after you finish a marathon, that you can faint if you don’t?  It’s true.  The finish at UTMB is fairly abrupt – maybe 15 feet between the finish line and then a wall of seats, spectators and/or photographers.  I stood there for a moment and then noticed Paul (the guy I had sat with before the start) sitting on the side.  I sat down next to him, talked for a minute or so – he finished about 40 minutes ahead of me – and then got up to do whatever I was going to do.  I must have looked funny because he asked if I felt dizzy.  I said sort of, he asked me something else, and the next thing I knew, someone was slapping my face asking “ok, ok?”.  I thought “ok, someone is slapping my face”.  After a moment, the face slapper started back up, so this time I said “ok!”, opened my eyes, and the slapping stopped.  Paul had grabbed me before I fell and put me down on the planter edge where we were sitting – thank you Paul, that would have sucked to finish and then crack my head open on concrete.  The face slapper was the medical volunteer (who later told me I was the second person to faint so far that morning – it was only 7am).  Meanwhile Janet had shown up, only to miss my finish by a minute or two and instead see me lying pale with open unmoving eyes.  I had to go lie on a cot in the medical tent for a bit while Janet went off to retrieve my drop bag with warm clothes.  Then the normal post-race programming resumed – we walked back to our room, I ate a few bites of something, took a bath, and then immediately passed out in bed (in a good way this time) in spite of the amazing quantities of caffeine in my body.  I slept for a couple hours and then got up to watch the last finishers and the awards ceremony.



Physically, I was in surprisingly good shape after the race.  I couldn’t sit down very easily the first day, but that got fixed by a full night of sleep.  I had a couple blisters that surprisingly didn’t become infected after being in wet muddy shoes for too many hours.  I had crotch chafe that was uncomfortable for a couple days.  Because I had used poles through most of the race, my whole body hurt – my shoulders hurt almost more than my legs – but nothing came away injured.  I think I recovered physically faster than mentally – I felt good enough to run a little three days later, but felt mentally fuzzy and slow for another couple days after that.  50 hours is a long time to go without sleep.

Packing these wet, stinky things back in my bags was fun.  But they served me well.

Packing these wet, stinky things back in my bags was fun. But they served me well.

The Numbers:  My time was 37:37:46, slightly better than the 38 hours I thought was aggressive but achievable for this race.  I think the finish rate was slightly down this year – under 1600 finishers (out of 2300 starters) vs. something like 1700 last year – and Rory Bosio (amazing women’s winner this year and last year) took almost an hour longer this year.  So conditions may have been a little harder than I accounted for.  I finished 427 overall, out of 1581, and 53 out of 262 among 50-59 male finishers (another 160 in my age group DNF’d), so basically top 25% among finishers.  I’m sure I could go a little faster – manage aid stations better, for example – but for those conditions and my readiness, I think I came close to best case.  It’s pretty amazing to think that a race that lasted almost 38 hours went well.

These Are A Few Of My Favorite Things:  It is the Alps after all…

The Climb to Col de la Seigne.  This was between 2am-4:30am the first night.  The rain had stopped by then and I wasn’t too tired yet.  The first part of the climb was on a very runnable smooth road.  During the second, steeper trail part, I was able to look back maybe 4 miles down the valley I had just travelled, seeing a long string of headlamps following me up.  Plus we crossed from France into Italy at the top – pretty cool to change countries by foot.

North Face Flight Series Raincoat:  All my gear worked pretty well but my jacket was awesome – thin, packs tiny, light, truly waterproof and truly breathable.  Supposedly designed for UTMB.  And of course it doesn’t seem to be available now.   Runner-up is my Ultimate Directions PB pack – comfortable with just enough space.

The Saint Gervais Volunteer:  Seb Chaigneau is an elite ultra runner from Chamonix – he’s placed in the top 3 at UTMB and won Hardrock last year.  He has several videos out about training for UTMB and with a GoPro overview of the course.  I spent a fair amount of time watching them before the race and they were helpful.  At the Saint Gervais aid station, I took care of things and stopped briefly just before leaving to make sure I hadn’t forgotten anything.  Someone asked me “Can I get you something?”  I turned and there was Seb Chaigneau, ready to fetch me water or some food.

Seb Chaigneau helping me out.

Seb Chaigneau helping me out in Saint Gervais.

Arete du Mont Favre:  The UTMB highlight videos have these incredible shots of runners cresting a knoll with a deep valley behind them.  That’s Arete du Mont Favre.  I got there just as the sun was coming up.  It lived up to the video.

View from Arete du Mont Favre as the sun is coming up. Not quite enough light for a good picture. Or maybe it captures my own bleariness.

The Party:  In almost all events I’ve done, you show up early one morning, beat yourself up for a while, hang out for a little while when you are tired/hurting, and leave.  This was festive for a few days before the race – when you can enjoy it – all the way through the awards ceremony after the races.

Men's winner Francois d'Haene on the Jumbotron.  I'm not sure there are any trail races in the US with a Jumbotron.

Men’s winner Francois d’Haene on the Jumbotron. I’m not sure there are any trail races in the US with a Jumbotron.

Women's winner Rory Bosio (in blue) talking with Anton Krupicka.

Women’s winner Rory Bosio (in blue) talking with Anton Krupicka. Jason Schlarb – 4th place overall – is in the gray shirt on the right.

The top three in the men's 60-69 group.  Scott Mills - the guy we met on the cable car - placed third in his age group.  Congrats!

The top three in the men’s 60-69 group. Scott Mills – the guy we met on the cable car – placed third in his age group. Congrats!

Georganna Quarles won first in the women's 60-69 group.  Of 6 starters in the group, she was the only one to finish.  Pretty cool getting an age group award in front of a few thousand people.

Georganna Quarles (blue in the center) won first in the women’s 60-69 group. Of 6 starters in the group, she was the only one to finish. Pretty cool getting an age group award in front of a few thousand people.  Great lesson in the value of persisting.

Provence:  Janet was brilliant and arranged for a few recovery days in Provence after the race.


Putting in some quality recovery time at our hotel in Provence. We spent the better part of two days in this garden – eating, napping, swimming, testing the quality of the local beverages, and of course starting this post.

The Support, Before, During, and After:  Thank you to all the people who wished me luck beforehand, paid attention while I was out there, and who congratulated me afterwards.  You can’t get through something like that without a lot of personal stubbornness, but it doesn’t hurt to know that a bunch of people are rooting for you and want to see you finish.  Thank you.  Thank you also to Janet for arranging a great trip around this event.  Thanks again to Paul H for literally supporting me as I started abruptly down after finishing.  And thank you to the organizers and the many many volunteers who made it possible for us to be out there at all.  Francois d’Haene, the overall winner, devoted his short awards ceremony speech to all the people who make the event a success – spectators, friends and family, volunteers, organizers (and even us mortal runners).  I think we all feel that same gratitude.

The RW 3:20 folks were tracking me real time and analyzing my times vs. Rory Bosio and Michael Wardian (who was struggling a bit at this point in the race).

The RW 3:20 folks (who know me as Max) were tracking me real time and analyzing my times vs. Rory Bosio and Michael Wardian (who was struggling a bit at this point in the race).

And many hours, when I was done RB40 made this Wordle from their posts.  It was fun to look at these things after the race.

And after many posts and hours, when I was done RB40 made this Wordle from their posts. It was fun to look at these things after the race.

This was in our kitchen when we got home - thanks C and M!

This was in our kitchen when we got home – thanks C and M!

I think that about does it.  A great “day” and a great experience overall.


P.S. Adam Hewey’s funny yet accurate stream-of-consciousness (and much shorter) writeup here:

P.P.S.  Someone asked how much I actually ran.  This is approximate, but the breakdown is something like this: 3 hours stopped in aid stations or on the trail (taking pictures, etc.), 6 hours running at decent speed (~6 mi/hour), 18 hours hiking uphill (~2 mi/hr), 9 hours going downhill on technical trails ranging from picking my way down rocks to shuffling steadily (~3.5 mi/hr).


  1. awesome photos, awesome write-up, and an awesome race! congrats, max!

  2. Thanks Steve!

  3. Amazing job!! Great pictures and fantastic story about Seb – that is pretty much the icing on the cake!! Congrats! 🙂

  4. Sorry for replying so late to this…

    Wow, this is insane and awesome at the same time. As always, I enjoy the pictures and the details of the race. Thank you for sharing and congratulations on not just finishing but doing it without injury. 🙂

  5. This was really fantastic to read through, and somehow you still didn’t really make it sound like it was as painful as I imagine. You definitely have a list of races under your belt worth envying. 18 hrs of hiking uphill? Yowzah. Thanks for providing the breakdown. Cheers!

  6. Congratulations Mark. I’m from Istanbul, Turkey and ran CC last year. This year I will run UTMB. Your post will be very helpful for me, thanks.

    • Good luck in your training and have a great race. It’s incredible!

  7. great race report, Congratulations!! Is the photo of Georganna Quarles yours? If so, could I get permission to include it in a little story about her for our running club newsletter? (Donner Party Mountain Runners) Thanks so much!

    • Hi, yes it’s mine and that’s fine. Someone recommended I get in touch with the Donner Party since I’m running Tahoe 200 next week. Unfortunately, I never got around to it. But hopefully I will meet some of those folks when I’m out there.

      • Wonderful, thank you! Good luck at T200, we will have the best (our opinion) aid station on the course – Brockway. Hope to see you out there! Thanks, Jenelle

      • Thanks – if my memory is still working at that point, I’ll look for you at Brockway.

  8. […] Editor’s Note: Georganna Quarles won first in the women’s 60-69 group at the 2014 UTMB. Of 6 starters in the group, she was the only one to finish. Photo below, of Georganna on the podium, was used with permission from Pointlenana’s blog […]

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